Nearly 150 years after John Wesley Powell's pioneering trip through the Grand Canyon, the park still conceals remarkable places no humans have ever seen. Contributing editor John Harlin joins a crew of explorers on a journey of discovery.
It’s Rudow, yelling from somewhere out of sight. “Tell Sonny to pull the rope!”
I’m the messenger between Rudow and Sonny Lawrence, who holds our lifeline to safety if the route ahead proves impassable. I hesitate for a moment, then shout the instructions up to Lawrence. He severs our connection with the rim.
While no one expects to get trapped in a canyon on this month-long expedition, no one expects it to be easy, either. The previous night at the campfire, when Rudow had announced the looming 4 a.m. coffee call, a collective groan arose from the darkness. Rudow fired back his standard response, which had become a running joke: “Didn’t you get the memo?”
It had been a long memo, sent to a lucky few. And it pulled no punches when it came to the type of expedition Rudow, 46, was planning. It would be no beer-fueled joyride down the Colorado River. For Rudow’s trip, the floating basecamp would simply provide access to the myriad undiscovered slots that lie in a remote no-man’s land between river and rim. We would launch in early February; water bottles would freeze at night. Most days, the crew would climb as much as 3,000 vertical feet through some of Grand Canyon’s most forbidding terrain, hike a few miles across the desert, then drop into a crack in the earth. And as the infamous memo spelled out: “We’ll set up camp and cook dinner in the dark. It will be cold and miserable at times. There will be suffering … Please bail out if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea.”
No one bailed. We had been invited to make history. And we’d do it in the heart of one of the country’s most popular national parks. The Park Service estimates that 180 million people have visited Grand Canyon since it was established in 1919, exactly 50 years after John Wesley Powell made his pioneering descent of the Colorado River. But despite the rafting and hiker traffic that has followed, no one has ever seen what’s inside many of Grand Canyon’s innermost recesses. Powell himself anticipated this when he wrote in 1874, “You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.”
Few have risen to the challenge, and of those who have, only Rudow and his main partner in exploration, Todd Martin, have focused their energy so obsessively on penetrating the park’s secret world of slots. Approaching these hidden canyons from the rim requires long and arduous hikes, mostly off-trail, to reach a single one. That slowed Rudow’s quest to explore them, but then he hit on the idea to approach from the river. With a month of raft-and-rappel travel, he planned to make a record number of first descents for one trip.
“This was a chance of a lifetime,” says Lawrence, a 58-year-old veteran canyoneer from Redlands, California, without any fear of overstatement. Sixteen people—the maximum allowed on a rafting permit—signed up before Rudow even knew the dates.